Thursday, February 11, 2016

Bag of History

Damn it! Dan Brown & Nostradomus made it
to this shelf of history. (skepreview) 
I always am heartened when I stumble upon solid skeptical thinking and advice on not explicitly skeptical media.  I have been listening to The Modern Scholar series entitled Medieval Mysteries: The History Behind the Myths of the Middle Ages by Professor Thomas F. Madden.  I have listened to a rather large number of Prof. Madden's lectures.  In part, because he pretty much represents the guy I wanted to be when I was earning my B.A. in History at Gettysburg College.  Except instead of lecturing on the Crusades and The Byzantine Empire, I would be lecturing on the War of the Rebellion or San Juan Hill.  Anyway, he's a dynamite lecturer.  I hold him in high regard.  He has a really entertaining style.  

While listening to the second lecture on the Holy Grail in the series, near the end Prof. Madden laments how Grail Lore in quite recent times went from a literary motif to something more real in popular culture.  Prof Madden then proceeds to give a rather sharp explanation of pseudo history:
If you think of Erich Von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods, in which he claimed that ancient astronauts had come and essentially created the pyramids and other sorts of things. These kinds of histories really changed how people thought about history. Prior to the 1960s and 1970s people thought of historical scholarship and historical research as a way to learn about the past and historians as people trying to illuminate the past.  But probably as a result of the 60s revolution and kind of a reaction against the establishment and all of the culture that came out of that there started to have a feeling that historians were the establishment, and that there was a real history out there.  A secret history that they were keeping the people away from. And Von Däniken's work particularly plays on this theme. That these historians don’t want you to know that ancient astronauts once came and built all these things for us.  Well, the holy grail was a natural for this actually, and it would soon be kind of pulled into this.  The method that these authors use, and I should say none of these are trained historians, they are just simply writers; it's always pretty much the same. 
Then Prof. Madden gives a wonderful explanation as to why it is basically nonsense which was just a delight to hear unexpectedly.
It's what I always refer to as the bag of history method. What you do is come up with a theory, the more outlandish the better, and then you go across history looking for evidence taken completely out of context, and you place it all into the little spots in your theory. Anywhere where the theory does not work, you simply just wave your hands and say well clearly there is so much evidence that suggests this it must be true.  And you ignore all other evidence to the contrary, and as a result you can prove almost anything. And then when historians say that it makes no sense, or there is a vast amount of evidence to demonstrate that it is wrong, you simply say see it is part of the conspiracy they are trying to silence us. (emphasis added) (Chapter 2, at 26:30 minutes) 

Here in a nutshell is skeptical outreach that did not require the reader to be given a link to a piece at Insight or Doubtful or seek out Dr. Steven Novella's Great Course's series lecture entitled Your Deceptive Mind.  No, it was solid skepticism just out there in the wild.   What these type of pseudo-historians have allowed to occur is that the Holy Grail which was a part of literature and not history has become for some an actual historical artifact as argued in the book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail.  Now some believe the grail existed not as a chalice but as the blood line of Christ.  This was popularized by the novel and motion picture, The Da Vinci Code.  

Now I cannot wait to finish the rest of the series.  I am running out of Madden lectures on Audible.  He ought to get cracking on new ones. 

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